Lee Isaac Chung’s quirky and charming drama follows a Korean family’s attempts to make their home in rural Arkansas in 1983. Based on his own childhood experience, Minari is a beautifully-acted and nuanced portrayal of the pursuit of the American Dream, one that gently moves, amuses and uplifts us, but never sugar-coats the realities of immigrants trying to find their place in a foreign land.
Minari is a Korean herb, also called ‘Japanese parsley’ and ‘Chinese celery’. In the film grandma plants it in a nearby creek and, with the right loving care and attention, it eventually flourishes. We hope that the Yi family can do likewise, but there are many obstacles in the way.
They have travelled from California in search of a better life. Jakob (Steven Yeun) is excited by how much land they now have and quality of the soil (“this is the best dirt!”) but his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) is unhappy about their new trailer house-on-wheels (“this isn’t what you promised”). Their two children take things in their stride. When their parents have a row they write ‘don’t fight’ on paper planes and throw them into the room.
Jakob and Monica have jobs at a hatchery, sorting chicks by sex, but the work is tedious and soul-destroying. Jakob enlists the help of eccentric neighbour Paul (Will Paton) to plough their land and plant Korean vegetables. He dreams of supplying the 30,000 Koreans who emigrate to the US every year.
One of these is the wonderful grandma Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung), whose arrival creates new family tensions, but also brings delightful Korean traditions (and ‘smells’). She arrives bearing gifts but is not averse to swearing, cheating at cards or stealing dollar notes from the collection plate when it is passed round in church.
At the heart of the film is the relationship between David and his grandma. Initially shy of her, the boy is baffled that she can’t read or cook (“she isn’t like a real grandma”), and plays a nasty trick on her. Soon, though, they form a strong bond. As a fun-loving old rascal, Soon-ja treats David as an equal. She teaches him cards and encourages him to push himself, despite his serious heart condition.
When I first heard about Minari, I thought of Studio Ghibli’s My Neighbour Totoro. They are, of course, very different films, but they both feature the transforming influence of a mischievous free spirit, who brings fun and magic into the kids’ lives. They are both unhurried evocations of childhood summers in the shadow of illness. And Emile Mosseri’s yearning score evokes the widescreen wonder of Joe Hisaishi’s greatest hits.
Grandma is the comic star of the show (Youn Yuh-jung won an Oscar). She is sometimes like a Korean yoda, imparting homespun wisdom and funny phrases. “Pretty boy,” she tells David, as if he was a parrot. “I’m not pretty,” he replies. “I’m good-looking.” Helping break the ice, or just being insensitive (take your pick), she diagnoses his bed-wetting problem: “penis broken”. “It’s not called a penis,” says David, “it’s called a ding-dong.”
Jakob and Soon-ja offer their own ways of coping with the immigrant experience and family life in general. Both give us hope that, like them, we can cultivate our own gardens.